In the 20th century, grenache was one of the world’s most important red grapes. The vine thrives in warm, dry climates, producing large crops where other varieties struggle, so was planted extensively across some of Europe’s largest regions.
The grape is thought to have originated in northern Spain (called garnacha there), where it has historically dominated vineyards of Rioja and other regions. Across the south of France, from the hot Languedoc to the southern Rhône and Provence, it’s used to make everything from pale, dry rosé in Tavel to full-bodied dry red in Châteuneuf-du-Pape and the Côtes du Rhône (usually blended with other red grapes such as syrah, mourvèdre, carignan and cinsault), to rich, sweet, fortified Banyuls in Roussillon.
The variety has a long history in Sardinia as cannonau. Indeed, some vine experts think it originated there before making its way to Spain.
As recently as 1990, grenache was the world’s second-most widely planted grape. Things have changed since then. The rise of so-called ‘international varieties’ has taken cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and shiraz to the top of the vineyard area table. But the sheer volume of wine produced in the traditional European grenache-growing regions means it’s still in the top 10.
In Australia, grenache’s fluctuating fortunes have been more dramatic. In its mid-20th century heyday, grenache was our number one red grape, used for everything from full-bodied red ‘Burgundy’ blends to rich, sweet tawny ‘Port’. Grape growers, particularly in warmer regions, such as the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and the large irrigated vineyards along the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers, were attached to it for the same reasons as the Spanish, French and Italians: it grows well in the heat and doesn’t need much water to produce ample crops.
Changing tastes and fashions saw other grapes nudge grenache from the limelight by the century’s end. Where once the Australian grenache crop was on a par with cabernet sauvignon, today 20 times more cabernet than grenache is picked each year.
The ’80s and ’90s were dark days for the variety. Many vineyards were ripped out. A few champions such as Charlie Melton (Barossa) and d’Arry Osborn (McLaren Vale) kept the flame alive with their Nine Popes and d’Arry’s Original grenache blends. They were exceptions. Most winemakers didn’t want to know.
Now, thankfully, grenache is having a dramatic reversal of fortune. Thanks in part to the need for climate-change-adapted varieties and a move away from big powerful reds towards wines with more restraint and character. The Barossa and McLaren Vale producers once again acknowledge the quality of their precious blocks of old grenache bush vines.
Leading producers, particularly in McLaren Vale, are making increasingly impressive reds from these old vines. Grenaches from Bekkers, S.C. Pannell and Yangarra are among our finest, combining power (14.5-15% alcohol) and finesse with ease.
Minimal-intervention, natural-leaning producers have also found grenache – bottled on its own (Jauma, Ochota Barrels) or blended (Ruggabellus) – can make some of the most expressive, medium-bodied lively reds in regions once thought of as strictly full-bodied, rich red territory.
Some winemakers are even planting the variety again, not just in its traditional warm climate homes of the Barossa and McLaren Vale, but in cooler regions, such as Heathcote and the Yarra Valley.
The renaissance is well underway.
2017 De Bortoli Villages Rosé, Heathcote, A$22
This is the core of Yalumba’s range of different viogniers; the variety features in eight of The winemakers at De Bortoli are particularly adept at the pale, dry rosé style, so it’s no surprise to find this one, made from grenache grapes grown in the warm northern vineyards of Heathcote, is gorgeously savoury and spicy.
2015 La Ferme St Martin, Clos St Martin, Beaumes de Venise, France, A$50
Grenache grows across the south of France, but it’s rare to find it made into pure varietal wine. This, at 85 per cent grenache and 15 syrah (shiraz), is close. It is packedwith joyful ripe bramble fruit, flecked with garrigue herb and spice.
2016 Henschke Johann’s Garden, Barossa Valley, A$56
This is a particularly good example of the more refined grenache mourvèdre shiraz blends emerging from the Barossa at the moment. Heaps of ripe fruit, but entrancingly perfumed, too, with fine, lingering tannins.
2017 S.C. Pannell Old McDonald, McLaren Vale, A$65
One of two new single-vineyard grenaches from Steve Pannell. A masterclass in elegance, despite nudging 15 per cent alcohol: super-fine silky tannins; pretty floral raspberry aromatics; medium-weight juicy red fruit. Gorgeous.